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  • Writer's pictureLakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Julie Taymor

I always went to New York for work and never found the time to see any shows.  But when Lion King opened in 1997 on my birthday, Nov 13, the rave reviews made me make a special trip to New York just to see the show.  I called my friend Alexander Tsiaras to help me get the best possible ticket and went all by myself to the show because I did not want to be disturbed talking to anyone.  And the show was worth the effort!

I have never been drawn into another world like I have been in that show. As audience, I was part of the theatre with the show happening all around me. The fabrics, headgear and other props were hand-made and carefully curated.  At the height of my life working with a technology firm where I was evangelizing computer graphics, animation and digital technologies; I was swept away by the simplicity and elegance of the show.  I only dreamed of meeting the creator and director Julie Taymor.  And by the time I met her, she had rocketed into stardom with her movies and Broadway shows.  It is impossible to capture her contribution to creativity in this short article. So, let me just brush over a few of her accomplishments. 

Her movie Across the Universe paid homage to rock & roll royalty, The Beatles and was praised by Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney.  Her movie about my favorite artist Frida, which won two Academy Awards, paid a fitting homage to one of the most enigmatic artists of our era.  Julie’s stage adaptation of the movie Lion King became a rage on Broadway.  With over 24 global productions that have been seen by more than 90 million people in over 100 cities in 19 countries, the show became one of the highest-grossing entertainment titles in box-office history worldwide.  The show received 11 Tony Award nominations earning Taymor Tony Awards for Best Director and Costume Designer, making her the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a musical.  Julie was also honored with more than 70 major arts awards globally.

While the production genius of creating floods on stage to helicopters landing on the stage was at its peak on Broadway, Lion King took my breath away because of its simplicity.  It used masks, fabric, and live music to bring a strong sensory experience of the story.  And I wanted to see the person and space from where this magic originated.

When I visited Julie at her apartment in New York, I could see the source of her inspiration integrated in various parts of the home.  I could see her living room be the space for animated conversations among the actors, musicians, and technologists discussing the narratives for various movies and theatre productions.  Her long-time partner Elliot Goldenthal composes music for most of her creations and I could see them sit by the piano and discuss the mood of various scenes and go back and forth on the options for compositions. Elliot won an Oscar for his composition for Frida.  It is one of my most favorite movies about a woman I fiercely admire.  I could see the music from Frida floating in the air as we passed by the piano.

When I entered her studio upstairs, I saw the trial masks and fabrics that were used in Lion King as well as other pieces of work that were under progress. I felt as though I had entered a temple of creation. I love seeing people’s working spaces, finding out what inspires them, and learning how they work. Her studio is the space where she thinks, creates, builds and goes through her iterative thoughts.  Her approach to theatre is very different from traditional Broadway and her background has a lot to do with it. 

Julie has been an adventurer and a learner all her life.  She visited India as a teenager and told me that the images of Kali and female goddesses had an impact on her. She studied with Indonesian mask-makers. Soon after, she developed a mask/dance company, Teatr Loh, consisting of Japanese, Balinese, Sudanese, French, German and American actors, musicians, dancers and puppeteers.

I could see how her experiences in this period influenced her stage adaptation of Lion King. In fact, this earlier influence is what perhaps makes all her movies and theatre stage have a sense of subtle aesthetics and a dream-like quality.  

We were thrilled to host Julie and Elliot at the INK Conference and they stayed on for a few more weeks to travel across India.  So, we got to spend some time together after the conference and host her at other dinner parties.  Both of them are deep thinkers, sensitive travelers and they have an amazing sense of respect for India and its culture.

Life has not always been easy for Julie.  She has had her fights.  The ambitious Spiderman project with Julie directing and Bono and Edge of U2 composing music suffered setbacks like losing its producer early on and also creative differences.  Julie stood her ground and never let anything touch her spirit.  Her work continues and her latest creation is the movie The Glorias: a movie based upon autobiography My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.  Julie produced, directed, and co-wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020.  

Julie is not just a theatre persona or film director or an activist.  She is all of that and more.  She is Julie and expressions of her taking shape of movies or theatre or something else.  And I look forward to experiencing her insights through multiple expressions for many years to come!

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